We're almost through Opening Day 3 in the nonsensical baseball schedule of 2012, so let's take stock of a few things.
The starting pitchers are heroes. The hitters are zeroes. And some of the closers go even lower than that. The chase for saves is a 24-7-365 exercise.
Runs have been difficult to come by in the early going — the scores on the sandlot look like scores from soccer's World Cup — but the bats tend to perk up when a closer toes the rubber. Consider the fireworks Thursday, with Chris Perez blowing up in Cleveland and Jose Valverde losing his way in Detroit.
Perez gets top billing in the first Closing Time of the year because he's more of a closer on the brink. Although Perez was 36-for-40 on save chances last year, no one with a critical eye thought too much of his season. He struck out just 39 men over 59.2 innings — against 26 walks — and he was the beneficiary of a lucky .234 BABIP. With his velocity dipping and his swing-and-miss rate evaporating as well, it was hard to trust Perez into 2012. His FIP checked in at 4.27 last year, his xFIP at 5.01.
An oblique injury knocked Perez down for a few weeks in spring training, kick-starting the Vinnie Pestano fire drill. You probably remember Pestano, last year's set-up star in Cleveland. He fashioned a 2.32 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 62 innings last year, with 84 punchouts and just 24 walks. And his ground-ball rate (39 percent), while not on the plus side, was at least considerably higher than Perez's (28 percent).
The Indians believed Perez was back to full health by the end of camp, so the chunky closer got his bullpen chair back (the one with extra padding). And the Indians had a cushy save chance ready to go in the Thursday opener, taking a 4-1 lead over Toronto into the ninth inning. Justin Masterson made it happen, twirling eight fantastic innings (2 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K) and earning a few fantasy point-and-clicks along the way. (He'll be home against the White Sox next week.)
Enter Perez, and kiss the lead goodbye. His fastball was settling in the 91-92 range, he had trouble finding the zone (two walks), and the occasional strikes he did throw had "hit me" written all over them. Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson opened the inning with sharp singles, and Edwin Encarnacion eventually clouted a two-run, game-tying double that would have left the park on a warmer, wind-neutral day. Perez wasn't able to clean up the mess on his own; Pestano was summoned for the final batter.
Pestano went on to work 1.1 innings, retiring four of the six men he faced. He went easy on the nerves of Cleveland — 18 of his 25 pitches were strikes. Other than one plunked batter, there was no roller-coaster ride here. Perhaps Pestano had a settling influence on both bullpens; the game remained tied at 4-4 until J.P. Arencibia ripped a game-deciding three-run homer in the top of the 16th. Cheers in the YYZ.
Manager Manny Acta is dealing with a tricky situation as he handles his closing role going forward. There's a clear argument to be made that Pestano is his best reliever, so why not promote him to the ninth inning? Then again, perhaps Pestano, as the better pitcher, is more valuable in a non-closing role; maybe the team is best served utilizing him as the "whenever needed" arm, with an open mind towards multi-inning and mid-jam appearances. Maybe the safest place to put a so-so option like Perez is at the top of the ninth inning, where most two- and three-run leads will be converted by almost any big-league reliever.
We can't tell Acta how to handle his bullpen, but we do give out fantasy advice (supplemented nicely by Mackdaddy's steady stream of "I told you so" and a few anonymous "you'd never win my league" notes dropped here and there). Pestano is one of the most intriguing closer-in-waiting candidates on the landscape right now. He's currently available in 75 percent of Yahoo! Leagues.
There's no one-size-fits-all recommendation for Pestano; the save dynamic is vastly different, league-to-league. In deeper pools where every save is a blood war, he's probably owned already. Forget about AL-only groups — those owners targeted Pestano with gusto last month. In the thinnest of the mixers, you can probably sit back and watch Pestano, see if Acta gets antsy for a change; action isn't needed yet. And in the pools of medium depth, I leave the call to you — maybe you need to be proactive with set-up men, and maybe you don't (it depends on league scope and owner habits and patterns).
I'd be immediately grabbing Pestano in any save-challenging mixer of mine, but he's been owned in those groups for a while. If nothing else, let's push that ownership tag upward. This guy is going to give us quality innings in 2012, a positive strikeout rate, and maybe some saves as well. There's value to be had here.
And if you're stuck with Perez, you might want to try to ship him to another club when a good opportunity arises; wait until he (hopefully) converts a save or two, that is. You can't try to trade him today, the timing is all wrong.
• Much like Perez last year, Jose Valverde had a save-successful campaign that didn't pass the secondary examination. Although Valverde finished with a 2.24 ERA and converted all 49 of his save chances, he collected 34 walks over 72.1 innings and his strikeout rate fell for the fifth consecutive season. Valverde was also spared a few potential blown saves; on a handful of occasions, Jim Leyland sensed that Valverde didn't have it in the ninth and let someone else relieve, mid-inning, and assume the burden of the stat. If they don't erase the lead while you're standing on the mound, the red ink doesn't go on your record.
Valverde is one of those closers who should be owned from afar; it's okay to roster him, but for the love of all things holy, don't watch him pitch. He works slowly, he regularly puts runners on base, and he celebrates every success like it's the ninth inning of the World Series. I like him because he grabs a stat for me and he pitches for a team that I pull for; otherwise, Me and Jose aren't particularly tight.
Valverde's save streak came to a prompt end during Thursday's opener: the Red Sox knocked him around for three hits and a couple of runs in the ninth, erasing a dominant Justin Verlander start (eight scoreless, 2 H, 1 BB, 7 K). Valverde was around the plate (16 of 22 pitches were strikes) but the Red Sox made solid contact against him. Other than a borderline two-strike call to David Ortiz that Valverde didn't receive, he couldn't argue bad luck here. Valverde also gifted the Red Sox a free stolen base; he's not just slow to throw the ball, but he's also painfully deliberate when it comes to his motion and delivery.
Alas, it was a happy ending for Valverde; he cruelly vultured Verlander's win, courtesy of Detroit's run in the bottom of the ninth. Detroit started the rally against Boston's No. 2 reliever, Mark Melancon; because it was a tie game on the road, Bobby Valentine let the book handle his pitching strategy. Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila stroked singles against Melancon after an initial out (the Avila single was a gorgeous piece of hitting), and then Alfredo Aceves came in to pour some gasoline. Aceves hit No. 9 batter Ramon Santiago with a wayward toss — it likely would have been a wild pitch had it not struck Santiago — and then a sharp Austin Jackson single ended the game.
As Leyland History tells us, Valverde owners have nothing to fear here. Leyland is known for his patience with closers (the man trusted Todd Jones for years, resisting change) and he offered this gem after the game: "I'm glad that streak's over." This doesn't sound like a man who's going to worry in the ninth. Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel are good stash-and-hope plays if you forecast a potential Valverde injury or a colossal meltdown, but it's going to take a lot more than one misstep to change Leyland's mind.
• Enough of the spotty closers, let's go back to the names you can trust, old standbyes like Brad Lidge and Jonathan Broxton. It's Retro Day in the ninth inning.
The pitchers won and the hitters lost during the Washington at Chicago opener; a frigid day at Wrigley Field (and a jet stream blowing in) made it a dreadful day for offense. The Nats eventually scratched out a couple of late runs and won, 2-1. I'd feel sorry for colleague Andy Behrens, who was in attendance, but I didn't hear anything about Wrigley running out of Old Style (and I'm pretty sure Behrens knows how to conceal a flask). Ryan Zimmerman clocked an early shot that would have been a homer on most Wrigley days (but not Thursday), and Ian Stewart's triple off Lidge in the ninth barely stayed in the yard. Lidge did strike out two of the four batters he faced, if you want a positive spin.
Lidge and Henry Rodriguez are expected to share the Washington closing chores while Drew Storen rehabs his elbow. Storen has a chance to be back in mid-April (that's good) but any elbow injury has to be taken seriously. If Lidge or Rodriguez can hold down the fort, even with early-season weather helping out, it might encourage the Nats to keep Storen on a deliberate rehab schedule. It's not my elbow and it's not your elbow; all we can do is speculate.
Stephen Strasburg's seven crisp innings (5 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 5) came as expected, while Ryan Dempster's outing was a bigger surprise (7.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 10 K). Although I'm something of a Dempster Sympathizer, I'd like to see him succeed in more neutral elements (perhaps he'll see them next week at home against Milwaukee). He was in line for the win before Kerry Wood walked the park in the eighth inning. Carlos Marmol gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth.
As for the Broxton file, that's a Thursday story from off the field. Ned Yost tabbed Broxton as his primary closer Thursday, which might be a nod to Broxton's salary or past closing experience. I'm still of the belief that Greg Holland is the reliever you want here — better skills, much higher floor — but again, it comes down to the dynamic for saves in your league. Aaron Crow could also get into the mix at some point. It's going to be a while before I forget (or forgive) Broxton's ugly endgame in Los Angeles.
• Clayton Kershaw tried to fight through the stomach flu — with the Padres on the other side, you can't blame him — but ultimately he had to call it a night after three scoreless innings (2 H, 1 BB, 3 K, 39 pitches). Five LA relievers took over from there as the Dodgers held back the Padres, 5-3. Somewhere, the San Diego Chicken weeps. Assuming Kershaw is back to full health next week, he'll be up against the Pirates.
Javy Guerra marked his territory at the end, working a perfect ninth inning after Kenley Jansen struggled in the previous frame (Cameron Maybin hit a two-run homer off him). Edinson Volquez was the same old story on the San Diego hill; some good moments (seven strikeouts), some bad moments (four walks in one inning) and a short appearance (5 IP, 3 R, 2 ER, 97 pitches). He still looks like a selective streamer for now, not someone you want to dial up regularly in a standard mixed league.
Will Venable didn't start for the Padres, standard with Kershaw on the mound, but he did enter the game later, collecting a stolen base and a run scored. Keep in mind Venable swiped nine bags on 11 attempts in spring training, along with a .349 average and .417 OBP. He's still just 29; it's not too late for him to raise his game another level.
• So much for Jose Reyes and Friends taking their talents to South Beach. The Marlins were held in check Wednesday night against Kyle Lohse of all people (losing 4-1), and the Reds threw a four-hit shutout at the Fish on Thursday afternoon. I was bearish on Johnny Cueto all spring but he obviously doesn't care (7 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 4 K). Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall dominated the final two innings, combining for four strikeouts over six hitters.
Although it was surprising to see Miami not hit in the Cincinnati bandbox, the Wednesday home opener was more worrisome given how the game played out. Giancarlo Stanton connected on a couple of well-struck balls that looked like possible homers, but neither left the yard. It's obviously foolish to draw conclusions on the new stadium from one game, but it has to at least plant a seed in your mind.